Technology

Associations on Amazon’s Drones: More Than a Pipe Dream, But …

While Amazon says it can have futuristic drones delivering your stuff as soon as 2015, leading unmanned aerial vehicle industry groups say some major obstacles lie ahead—both regulatory and, well, physical.

While Amazon says it can have futuristic drones delivering your stuff as soon as 2015, leading unmanned aerial vehicle industry groups say some major obstacles lie ahead—both regulatory and, well, physical.

Don’t get too excited just yet, Amazon shoppers.

After a 60 Minutes report aired on Sunday, revealing that Amazon.com is working on a drone-based delivery mechanism, questions about the technology’s long-term potential and feasibility have been raised. According to two associations in the unmanned aerial vehicle space, Amazon’s plan has both—but that doesn’t mean it’s gonna be easy.

What the heck, Amazon? Ever the innovator in online shopping, Amazon has worked on a number of schemes to speed up the package-delivery process, including dropping off stuff in lockers at 7-Eleven stores and scoring a deal with the U.S. Postal Service to offer Sunday delivery. But both of these pale in comparison to what Amazon showed CBS News‘ Charlie Rose. The company’s proposed “Prime Air” delivery service, already at the working prototype stage, would involve delivering packages to consumers using GPS-targeted drones to shorten the delivery time to as little as half an hour. Sound kind of wild? It is. Even Rose and the rest of the 60 Minutes team admitted to being surprised by what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos showed them.

An encouraging future: The unmanned vehicle industry has faced such an uphill battle due to the aircrafts’ association with military weaponry that the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International  began discouraging the usage of the word “drone” to describe the technology this year. So it’s understandable that AUVSI’s President and CEO Michael Toscano finds the Amazon news heartening. “It underscores how this innovative technology will transform the way industries operate and the importance of keeping UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] integration on track,” he said in a statement after the Amazon story aired. He emphasized, however, that Amazon’s delivery service isn’t the only nondefense use for the technology: “Whether it is improving agriculture output, helping first responders, advancing scientific research, or making business more efficient, UAS are capable of saving time, saving money and most importantly, saving lives.” he continued.

Many questions remain: Bezos said he hopes to have Amazon’s service in the air by 2015, when the Federal Aviation Administration plans to release regulations for the commercial use of unmanned vehicles. However, the technology is so new that questions about privacy, security, and safety abound—which Toscano concedes. “Technology-wise, it’s feasible,” he told Politico. “The question is: Is it safe?” These concerns are shared by another group with interests in the unmanned vehicle space: the Aerospace Industries Association. “You have to look at the environment that Amazon and other delivery services operate in,” George Novak, AIA’s assistant vice president, told the publication. “There’s a lot of tall buildings, a lot of vehicles, a lot of pedestrians.” And while FAA rules might make room for Amazon’s system (though the agency says that regulating commercial drone use and piloting is complicated), the issues could extend beyond the federal level—Amazon might find itself having to win over state and local governments. And let’s face it: If stuff people purchased online is flying through the air, that would be a giant target for thieves.

Regulatory issues aside, Bezos’ optimism was anything but guarded.

“Could it be, you know, four, five years? I think so,” he told Charlie Rose. “It will work, and it will happen, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

(Amazon)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now, a former newspaper guy, and a man who is dangerous when armed with a good pun. MORE

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